Thursday, April 24, 2008

Some people just "Vanished"!

It’s hard to believe that innocent citizens could be swept from their homes in the middle of the night and tossed in jail…..then transferred to a “detention camp” and held for months – even years – as “prisoners of war.” But it happened during World War II all across the United States.

The Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 had been enacted 140 years earlier, at the end of the American Revolution. It was later modified and only its “Alien Enemies” provision remained. But after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, heightened fear broke out across the United States, and there was great suspicion that aliens – even people who just “looked” to be an aliens – might be enemy spies or even saboteurs.

Because of their obvious difference in physical appearance, oriental persons were easy targets. It’s estimated that more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interned under the Alien Enemies Act during World War II. Most of the internees, probably about 80 percent, were U.S. citizens.

Less well known is the fact that between 11,000 to 15,000 German-Americans were whisked off to detention camps during World War II. Their story has been little known, but thanks to an exhibit aboard a reconditioned bus called the BUS-eum, we’re finally getting a glimpse of this frightening era in American history. Entitled Vanished, the exhibit uses posters, photographs, and old films to help tell the story. German-Americans were interned in camps all across the country. The nearest to our part of the world was Camp Lincoln, located near Bismarck, North Dakota.

I first learned of the exhibit earlier this week, while it was traversing the state. Alas, before the bus could make it to Spearfish, a cracked engine cylinder put the vehicle out of business. Fortunately, the exhibit was shipped on to Black Hills State University, where it was exhibited for a few hours today in the Student Center.

The Director of the exhibit (and bus driver) is Iowan Michael Luick-Thrams, whose passion for the subject is obvious. He told our small assemblage at BHSU, that the Bus-eum has visited 1,015 communities across the country and has been seen by more than 100,000 people.

Vanished tells another sad but important story in the history of our country. While tens of thousands of internees of World War II thought it couldn’t happen to them, we are left wondering: could such a thing happen today?

A good question….and this exhibit helps us better understand this chapter of U. S. history. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend visiting the
Vanished web site. An even better site, in my opinion, is that of the German-American Internee Coalition. To get to that web site, just click on GAIC.

As a grandchild of German-Russian immigrants, I appreciate the passion brought to this project, and I support efforts to learn more and better understand the circumstances surrounding these internments. Knowing our history will always stand us in good stead.

And while it is appropriate for the GAIC to try to get the U.S. government to “review and acknowledge” the violation of civil rights perpetrated on Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and others, let’s hope it stops there. Document this experience. Understand it. Never forget it. But avoid the pervasive victimization mentality that cloaks much of our country and stop short of seeking reparations.

Better that we focus our vigilance upon open government and fight to ensure that civil rights of all citizens are doggedly protected. We should learn from the past, act in the present, and focus on the future.